After a decade away from the "Men in Black" franchise, director Barry Sonnenfeld returned for "Men in Black 3," which adds Josh Brolin as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K, Agent J (Will Smith)'s long-time partner in top-secret paranormal peacekeeping.
With the film out May 25, Newsarama sat down with Sonnenfeld in Los Angeles earlier this month to discuss how his interest in real-world science helps to shape the sci-fi of "Men in Black," shooting his first 3D movie and his fond memories of Fox's short-lived "The Tick" live-action series.
Newsarama: Barry, you've now done three "Men in Black" films. Obviously they're sci-fi, they're fantasy, they're comedy, but how much of an interest do you have at this point in real-life space travel?
Barry Sonnenfeld: I don't want to personally go into space because I would be afraid something would go horribly wrong. But growing up, I was totally, totally immersed in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space travels. We went down to Cape Canaveral several times, and we got to go up to the top of the gantry and look at Endeavor, and that was extraordinary. [Gallery: 'Men in Black III' Means Aliens & Time Travel]
I am interested in space and astronomy and all that; what really interests me a lot are the weird concepts surrounding quantum mechanics and quantum traveling. I just love that there are those that posit that for every single decision we make — make a left turn, make a right turn — that there is a version of reality where every single other decision that you could possibly make exists, and is multiplied by everyone on the planet, times every decision they make, and that it still doesn't equal as many stars and planets in the universe.
I love space, I love astronomy, I remember when I first read about black holes; but the whole quantum thing is real exciting to me.
Right, which is personified in the film in the character of Griffin. Also, the movie recreates a very famous space expedition — what kind of effort went into making sure that the historical details were accurate?
Part of the movie takes place surrounding the launch of Apollo 11. We not only went down to the Kennedy Space Center several times, but we had models, drawings, photographs from the era; tried to match the color, the gantries and all that. What's surprising to me is things like how late the gantries move away from the rocket as it's taking off — that's real. We have historical footage of that, and you go, "That's insane." [Watch the 'Men in Black III' Movie Trailer]
When you go to visit the Kennedy Space Center, they have a Saturn V rocket on its side, and you look at the back of it where all of the engine nozzles are, and the pipes, and you go, "There's no way this can work," that it wouldn't all just go horribly wrong, and things would shake apart within the first five seconds of takeoff. I had a '62 Lincoln Continental convertible — it's like that technology.
What it is, is amazing. In what — seven years? — between the time Kennedy made his announcement, where they didn't have anything, and they had to figure out every step of the way. Where are we going to build the rocket? How are we going to get it to the launch pad? All of the trillions of decisions that they had to make, and that they pulled it off, is truly extraordinary. It's why, when we decided to make the movie about time travel, we specifically picked 1969, because it's when mankind actually left Earth and stepped foot on a foreign body.
It's now 15 years since the first "Men in Black," and 10 years since the sequel. Were you at all hesitant in approaching the third film, thinking that maybe too much time had passed?
You know what, I think it's actually the perfect time, because it's far enough away from the first two that people will feel that it's fresh and new, which it is. Also, even young kids — from the age of maybe 5 and up — between DVD, pay TV, cable TV, have seen the other movies. So we didn't have to do a restart. We didn't have to spend the first 15 minutes telling the audience who the Men in Black are, which is nice.
Because it is so far away, it was also cool that there are people who might have been 17 when they saw the first one who are now 32 years old, and now have 10-year-old kids, so they get to experience that, too. For me, it's kind of cool. I don't worry that it was 10 years ago.
What went into the decision of making the movie 3-D? Was it something you were looking forward to trying, or was it somewhat obligatory since nearly every big genre movie is 3-D these days?
The second I came on, I said, "I want to make this movie in 3-D." Sony was thinking about 3-D, and then did the research and found out that financially it made sense to release a movie in 3-D, especially because 3-D is very big overseas. It's huge in Russia, and China — way bigger than in the states.
They agreed, and then I shot tests with two different rigs, and converted. I decided that converting was way better.
Which is interesting to hear, because a lot of people have negative attitudes towards conversion.
Not if you plan it out ahead of time. The enemy of 3-D is panning — so if you shoot a normal movie and you pan a lot, and then you convert it, it strobes, it hurts. I never pan, anyway.
"Men in Black" was based on an obscure independent comic book, and you also were heavily involved with "The Tick" live-action TV series. How connected are you to the world of comics? Is it something you keep tabs on? [Top 10 Comic Book Movies of all Time]
I knew "The Tick" not from the comic book, but the cartoon, which I loved. I loved working with [Tick creator] Ben Edlund, and he's still a friend. He's a genius.
I'm not a huge graphic novel guy and I don't play any video games, yet I just finished a comic book based on an idea of mine that Grant Morrison has just finished the script.
Right — Dinosaurs vs. Aliens.
Yeah. [I read] growing up — I mean, we're talking about comic books from the '60s, Batman, Superman, Archie and Jughead — really, that's about it. I guess I like creating worlds, and creating little microcosms of worlds, so I think that's what I'm drawn to. But man, I wish "The Tick" was still on the air. [Patrick] Warburton was extraordinary.
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MNN tease photo courtesy Columbia Pictures